Joan Didion: A mother’s journey into grief

Joan Didion
Joan Didion
Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s bestseller The Year of Magical Thinking chronicled her heartbreak over the death of her husband of 40 years. Now she has penned an unflinching book examining the life and loss of their adopted daughter, Quintana, writes Adam Higginbotham.

On a warm afternoon in September, a cathedral stillness gathers in the large, cool rooms of Joan Didion's sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The musty scent of old books hangs in the air mingling, at the end of the dimly lit hallway leading to her office, with the tang of the five cigarettes the writer still smokes each day. In the living room, Didion, now 76, perches on the edge of a loose-covered armchair, her tiny but perfectly manicured hands, roped with thick veins the colour of bruised fruit, hovering near a small plastic bottle of water on the coffee table.

She speaks in a soft, hurt voice occasionally broken by a pause or a nervous, staccato laugh; she frequently stops mid-sentence to correct or contradict herself; when the conversation becomes difficult, her silences lengthen.

The faces in the many framed pictures clustered around the room are, overwhelmingly, those of the dead: Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, killed by a heart attack in 2003; his nephew, the victim of a fatal plane crash; his niece Dominique, who was strangled in Los Angeles in 1982; the film director Tony Richardson, taken by Aids in 1991, and his daughter Natasha, who died after a skiing accident two years ago.

And leaning against the wall behind her is a giant photograph, so enlarged and sun-faded that it resembles a beautifully detailed painting, of a four-year-old girl wearing a bucket hat decorated with polka dots, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an upturned pair of sunglasses. This is Quintana Roo Didion Dunne, John and Joan's daughter, who, just before Christmas 2003, succumbed to a flu that became pneumonia, and led to a series of hospitalisations from which she never recovered: she finally died, almost two years later, at the age of 39.

Quintana's life and death are at the centre of Didion's new book, Blue Nights; although it's also, in part, about the author seeing her own life in fading light.

She says that she never intended to make Quintana the subject of the book. When she eventually realised what she was doing, she found the process nearly impossible and, at one point, considered abandoning it altogether; indeed, decided she need never — would never — write another book again.

“And then it struck me as such a personal failure that I determined I would finish it, and I did,” she says.

Once, Joan Didion might have been remembered only as the writer who, with the sharp, idiosyncratic essays collected as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, helped define both the New Journalism and Sixties America. Later, she and Dunne became some of the highest-paid screenwriters in Los Angeles — glamorous, well-connected and Hollywood's mascots of the East Coast intelligentsia. With the political reporting and fiction drawn from her experiences in Central America in the Eighties, she emerged as the grande dame of American journalism.

But her last book, The Year of Magical Thinking — which describes the 12 months following the death of Dunne, an event that triggered the abrupt implosion of the world as she had known it — was a work of often shattering intimacy. Didion and Dunne had rarely spent a day apart in 40 years, often writing together and so deeply enmeshed that even in conversation with others they often finished one another's sentences. Suddenly alone, Didion went quietly mad with grief, seeing reminders of John everywhere and, memorably, reasoning that she should not throw out his shoes because when he returned he would need them.

It was both an examination of the extremes of bereavement and a portrait of a marriage of enviable happiness and longevity. Yet even as she was writing it, her daughter's health continued a precipitate slide; pneumonia was followed by septic shock, and a subdural haematoma that required brain surgery; eventually, Quintana con

tracted acute pancreatitis and was placed on a ventilator. The book was already complete, and a publicity tour booked, when she died in August 2005.

While Quintana's illness is a key part of the narrative of The Year of Magical Thinking, Quintana herself is not. “For specific reasons, I had not written about her when I did Magical Thinking,” Didion tells me. “Because I didn't want to ...” she trails off. “She was alive. I did not want to write about her while she was ... You know, it was her life. It wasn't mine.”

When Didion began work on the book that would become Blue Nights in July last year, on the seventh anniversary of her daughter's wedding, she intended, she says, to write about having children.

“Not about children in the abstract, but how we raise our children. I was struck by that change in the way people were raising their children, from the way they had 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.” Where once parents aimed to encourage independence in their children, Didion observes, today they seek to keep them tethered to the home for as long as possible: on speed-dial, via Skype, by demanding constant updates about their movements. Inevitably, this subject drew Didion further and further into writing about her own daughter.

“Because I only had this one child, so naturally it became about her. And, as I got into it, I felt increasingly that I wanted to write about her.” The result is an often painfully unflinching examination of Quintana's life, death and Didion's own role as a mother. At one point, she recalls her useless efforts to help relieve Quintana of a loose baby tooth, which she tied with thread to the knob of a door she then slammed shut. Her daughter burst into tears, but the tooth remained in place; she was rescued by a cousin, who tugged the tooth free himself. Didion writes: “The next time a tooth got loose she pulled it herself.

“I had lost my authority. Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?” It is not the only place in the book where Didion seems to imply that she failed her daughter in some way. Is that really how she feels?

“Yes. It is how I feel. I mean, somebody failed Quintana. And I'm the person in sight, you know?”

But why does she say that?

“Why do I say that somebody failed her? Because she's not alive. Because I didn't keep her safe.”

Much of the power of The Year of Magical Thinking devolves from Didion's relentless application of her reporter's eye to the interrogation of a single event. In seeking to establish that she could not have saved her husband's life, she replays the instant of his death again and again, examines his medical history, constructs a minute-by-minute chronology of the time from the phone call that summoned the paramedics to the arrival of the ambulance at the hospital. But the causes of Quintana's illness remain undiscussed in the book and so seem oddly opaque — all the more so for appearing in a work of otherwise penetrating clarity. This was not only a result of Didion's reluctance to write about her daughter while she was still alive, but reflects perhaps a more fundamental way in which Quintana was unknowable to the woman who raised her: she had been adopted at birth.

At first, this was also something Didion wanted to avoid addressing in Blue Nights. “People I let read the book while I was working on it kept saying, ‘You're not going to talk about her without talking about her being adopted, are you?' Eventually, I ended up seeing that, if I was going to write a book about this child, I had to deal with this.”

The Quintana shown in the book is a saturnine child, even more mysterious than most, who displays strange shifts in mood — “her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes,” Didion writes. Quintana recounts sinister dreams and displays a precocious sophistication — describing a doll's house with a basement equipped with a projection room with “Dolby sound”, phoning 20th Century Fox to inquire what she needed to do to become a star — that was partly a result of her spending much of her childhood on film sets and dining on expenses in the great hotels of the world, but also of something darker and more elusive.

At five, Quintana one day told her parents that she had telephoned Camarillo, the local psychiatric hospital, to find out what to do if she was crazy. In retrospect, this is one of the incidents that makes Didion believe that she should have done more for Quintana while she could.

“She was already a person,” Didion tells me, “a specific person who had worries that I didn't address.” Today, she recognises, some parents would send such a child to a psychiatrist — but she dismisses with a laugh the suggestion that she and her husband might have done that at the time. “It wasn't part of my make-up. That wasn't what we did in our family.”

Later, Quintana was diagnosed with a series of mental illnesses — manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and borderline personality syndrome — for which she self-medicated. “She drank too much. She was an alcoholic. People would call her an alcoholic,” Didion says now.

“She actually went to Hazelden, a rehab. She was 29 or 30.” Didion suspects that there was a history of alcoholism in Quintana's natural family, but when it came to examining this aspect of her story for the book, she did not want to investigate further.

“I didn't think I had the right to. Here were these people in Texas who, for whatever reason, had given me — had made my life by giving me their child, right? And I did not want in some way to suggest that it had been a wrong thing for them to do.” Before she contracted pneumonia in 2003, Quintana had never suffered from any serious physical illness. The severe flu that first put her in hospital came, apparently, out of nowhere. “There really was no explanation given,” she says.

But, since Quintana's death, Didion believes she has found one. Sorting through stacks of newspapers from 2003 that she had collected with the intention of writing something about the Iraq war, Didion noticed a series of small stories, gradually advancing across the front pages, that described the spread of avian flu. “And just before Quintana got sick, it had reached North America. I'm convinced that's what killed her.”

If this was really what happened, then there was perhaps nothing Didion — or anyone else — could have done to save her daughter. In the end, she failed Quintana in the same way in which any parent fails their child: by blindly promising to keep them safe from harm in ways that are unrealistic or simply impossible.

“That's what it's about,” she says. “I don't think it's possible to have children without having a sense that you've failed them. And that's what I kept edging around, in there. You are always failing them, and they are always your ... hostages.”

Didion's failing health informs much of the apprehension of death in Blue Nights. The summer before last, she had a bad fall, and was surprised to discover herself waking up on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood. She was diagnosed with neurological inflammation, for which physical therapy was prescribed. Today, she describes her health as “not great”, and continues to have neurological difficulties. “I have noticed that people don't tend to get better as they get older,” she tells me with a papery laugh.

And when, at one point during our conversation, she gets up to answer the phone, she rises too quickly and nearly falls. “There's no reason to lose your balance going between this chair and that telephone,” she observes afterwards. “So there's still some kind of problem that I'm not on top of.”

In spite of her increasing frailty, Didion says she is comfortable living alone. She has a rich social life, and often goes out with friends, including Vanessa Redgrave, who played Didion in the monologue the writer adapted from The Year of Magical Thinking. If something should happen to her while she's at home, there is plenty of help nearby.

One of the aspects of Dunne's absence that has troubled her most frequently is the way she keeps thinking of things she would like to tell him. Today, she says she still finds herself wanting to share things with him, although not as often as she once did. Towards the end of our conversation, I wonder what she does now with these thoughts, when they occur to her; what does she do, instead of telling John?

“Instead?” she asks in surprise. “It's not an either-or situation. I don't tell anyone. I just keep it to myself.”

Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Fourth Estate, RRP £14.99, is out now

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